Why you need a timeline for your novel
If you ask ten authors what the hardest part of writing a novel is, you may get ten different answers, but I suspect that many of those answers will be some variant of getting it organized (and a bunch will says it’s editing the darn thing). The type of novel will influence the responses. If you’re writing a sci-fi or fantasy novel, then we may have to deal with world building of some sort. This can range from simple to incredibly complex—and those authors who have to build a world or a universe may say it’s the hardest part.
If you’re doing a vampire novel, all you may need to “build” is the nature of your vampires and possibly how they originated. Alien vampires, such as those my co-blogger Scott Gamboe created for his 14 Days ’Til Dawn novel, may require a bit more setup because Scott did have to build the world along with his vampires as well. Scott’s latest novel The Omega Sacrifice, originally began as a Star Trek: Deep Space 9 novel, which meant the world-building was pre-made for him. However, when he was unable to sell the novel to the publisher of that series, he was left with reconfiguring it. He’ll be doing a post in the near future about the novel and what he had to go through to de-Star Trek it.
At its most extreme, world building can be something akin to Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which Tolkien spent a lot of time developing. I spent a year or more working on the background for my first novel, and I know authors who have spent far longer developing their universes.
Now, don’t confuse setting with world building. They are not the same. Setting is where the story takes place, and that may involve research if it’s a real place with fictional elements. World building involves all the details surrounding that setting, so at some point setting may become world building. Even a simple romance set in a small town on Earth, may require some world building if you need to set up the town and its inhabitants, attitudes, places of business, and maybe its history—depending on the story.
But the purpose of this blog post is not to discuss setting or world building. Rather, it’s about one often overlooked aspect of the story: the story’s timeline. Every story has a timeline running through it, and that time line can be short (hours or days), or long (years, decades, centuries); it can be simple, or it can be complex. An interesting point is that often the shorter the time frame is that the story takes place in, the more important it is to have a detailed timeline. Why is that?
If you ever watched the TV series 24, where each hour-long episode took place in a one-hour period of time and the entire season was 24 episodes—a whole day—then you’ll appreciate the need for a solid timeline to ensure that the sequence of events is realistic. Granted they did take a few liberties on occasion, but the goal was to run the show in something close to real time. Unless the writers of the show all had photographic memories, then I’m sure they had a timeline so they could keep track of events.
Even if you’re not writing something tied that closely to a time frame, you may still need a timeline. Short stories with a simple plot can usually be managed without a timeline. The longer the story is it is and the more subplots you have, the more you’ll need a timeline to guide you and to keep your story accurate.
Just to be clear, when I say “timeline” this does not mean putting the actual dates and times as headers for scenes and chapters. I’m referring to a separate document or spreadsheet that shows what happens when. How details your timeline is will depend on the story itself. You may not need to go into detail at the minute and hour level that 24 needed. You may simply need to mention by day or even year. You may also need more than one timeline.
The story in Chris Keaton’s and my forthcoming novel The Mosaic takes place in a bit under two weeks, but there are two initial story lines split between two different locations several time zones apart and separated by a couple of days. Further, one character sends a package to the other location and it must arrive before the character does. We had to allow for transatlantic flight times. The two story lines and their characters gradually converge, so a timeline was essential to ensure that they merged in a logical time frame. We also had a phone call between the locations, so the time zone difference had to be considered.
Further, we have two other story lines in different locations that initially ran parallel then converged with these, and we again had to ensure that the timelines all worked together. In short, we had a bit of a mess to deal with. Without a solid timeline in place, we would have had major problems.
On top of that, we had to factor some past events and family history into a second, larger timeline that went back over a hundred years and several generations. It wasn’t very detailed (births and deaths and a couple of events that impacted the main story). While those historical events played only a very minor role in the novel, we had to make sure the family history (births and ages) made sense. Originally we had a great-great-grandfather mentioned, but after doing a timeline, it turned out that he could only be a great-grandfather. It was a minor detail that perhaps most readers would not notice, but accuracy mattered at that point since we had started to envision time one novel turning into a series.
I’ve seen some authors screw up when different time zones are involved, and when Chris sent me his original screenplay to work from, he had forgotten to take into consideration the time zone difference between the Iraq and Kansas in the US. You can’t have it be morning in both places at the same time. It’s easy to forget these things when in the throes of writing your novel. Creating a timeline can help you avoid such slip-ups.
In most cases, readers will appreciate good world building, but they’ll probably never appreciate the work you put into your timeline. Now, a word of warning is necessary here. Some writers put their timeline into the novel in the form of headers at the start of each scene or chapter. There is nothing wrong with this, especially if the story’s timeline is linear.
However, do not expect that a reader will follow a convoluted timeline simply because you put dates and times at the start of every scene. After a while, the reader may simply skim over those. If your story jumps back and forth in time, then you will need stronger clues, possibly calling special attention to the fact that it’s a previous day or week or year. A simple date won’t do, and you could end up with a very confused reader who has to flip back to figure out when things are happening.
If you’ve been reading our blog for a while, you may have thought that we’ve already covered every possible way to turn off your readers. Nope, we haven’t. Writing a novel is the easy part. The hard part is making everything in it work. Not having your story follow a logical timeline will confuse a reader or yank him out of the story (can lead to a bad review).
We’ve talked about STORY DETAILS in a number of our posts (and there’s a category for it on the blog to check out those posts). Time is just as important a story detail as everything else. Use a timeline and be sure you get time and timing right in your story. If you ignore time (and time constraints), you do so at your own risk.
As I said earlier, not every story or novel needs a timeline, but be certain that yours doesn’t before you decide not to create one.